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Richmond Docs Hear About Regenerative Medicine

The Richmond Academy of Medicine’s monthly gathering focused on advances in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Learn more from Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in this special Science Matters report by 88.9 WCVE correspondent John Ogle.

“We can take a very small sample of tissue – less than half the size of a postage stamp- and by day 60 we are going to have enough cells to cover a football field.” Dr. Anthony Atala, a leading figure in the emerging field of regenerative medicine, recently told the Richmond Academy of Medicine that researchers are now working on creating complicated structures such as heart valves and solid organs. “Most primary human cell types can now be grown outside the body. Many scientists have made many discoveries in many different cell types. But it’s interesting - even now – 2013 – with all of the advances we have had in the field of medicine there are still certain cell types that we cannot grow or expand outside the body.”

Dr. Atala is the Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He says by isolating the cells responsible for wound healing, doctors can grow and expand these cells, and reintroduce them to the body in a temporary structure called a scaffold. “The scaffold should replicate the biomechanical and structural properties of the tissue being replaced.

Basically if we are trying to replace a blood vessel we are going to use a very different biomaterial than if we are trying to replace a piece of bone. The material itself is going to act as a prosthesis until the cells are able to take over the functionality.” Cells migrate along the scaffold and replace it as the material in the scaffold dissolves. 

“Probably the most important thing of the whole equation” shares Atala, “are the materials – because the cell biology is fairly defined once you figure it out. The materials are really going to act as the organ until the cells are able to take over. So we use a family of about 20 different biomaterials that we mix and match so that we can replicate the biomechanical and strucutural properities of tissues being replaced.” Dr. Atala says the best results come from a combination of scaffolding, lab grown and expanded cells, and a growth hormone.

“So the analogy I like to make is that this is like a hammock. You know the hammock is the scaffold that we use and a blanket you lay under the hammock is a blanket of cells. But you have all of that porosity necessary so that if you were to use a water hose through the hammock you would get right to the blanket.”  

There are also ongoing experiments at Wake Forest using 3D printers. They are capable of printing cells and biological material, as well as a small two chamber heart in about forty minutes.

It will be years, Dr. Atala added, before new techniques become commonplace in medicine, and researchers hope to increase the scale and complexity of the structures they engineer. 

“The work that we do is not only complex but it really does require a multi-disciplinary structure. So you are really looking at these from every angle. You are looking at the molecular biology, the cell biology, the material science. It requires a major team to make sure that these structures really do work and you are doing this testing over and over again.”

Click here for more on the ABC's of Organ Engineering at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  

Article and video by : John Ogle, 88.9 WCVE correspondent and Patrick West LeVan, Different Day Productions

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